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A Prisoner of History: A look into the Life and Legacy of Butcher Duch

Taing Rinith / Khmer Times Share:
Former S-21 chief Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, at the Khmer Rouge tribunal in Phnom Penh. ECCC

On Monday last week, former S-21 prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, was transported to the Khmer Soviet Hospital with serious health problems, while serving his life sentence in Kandal provincial prison. Around an hour after midnight on Wednesday, he was pronounced dead due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

A few hours after sunrise, Duch’s body was transported to Chak Angre Krom pagoda and cremated without a Buddhist ceremony. However, it was still an honourable service when compared to at least 14,000 of his victims who did not even have a grave.

Photographers were not allowed to take pictures of Duch’s dead body, or his relaitives, who came to collect his remains. One of the policemen who were on guard said they were respecting the right of the dead and his family. However, for many people who have visited Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Duch’s former workplace, this seems hypocritical when you have seen the famous photograph of a female prisoner holding her baby, possibly taken moments before her torture or execution.

Media outlets across the world reported on his death, including the New York Times and the BBC, with the latter calling him a “symbol of Khmer Rouge horror”.

Pin Yathay, 76, the author of the best-selling memoir Stay Alive, My Son, and a member of the civil party who testified before the Trial Chamber of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), said Duch had been so much luckier than his prisoners, despite being given a life sentence in 2012.

“He had food to eat, a bed to sleep on, a doctor to examine him, and family to pick up his remains,” Yathay said. “The prisoners of S-21 had none of this, which would have been hell on earth,” he added.

While death ended his life imprisonment, many will remember Duch as “a historical prisoner” just like other leaders of the Khmer Rouge.


A good boy, a good teacher, and a grim reaper

Duch was born Kaing Guek Eav in November 1942 and was the eldest of four siblings in a poor Sino-Khmer family from Kampong Chen commune of Kampong Thom. Although poor health prevented him from attending school until he was nine, the boy attracted attention for his intellectual abilities. He even ranked second in the national baccalaureate examinations of 1959.

Famous historian David Chandler wrote in his book – Voices from S–21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison – that in a 1980 interview, Duch’s mother said her son’s head was “always in a book.” In another interview with Irish journalist Nic Dunlop, she described him as “a serious boy who rarely smiled and hardly ever laughed”, but had some good humour.

“A classmate recalled that in those days he was a studious young man with no hobbies or political interests,” Chandler said.

In August 1966, Duch graduated from the Institut de Pédagogie with a teaching certificate in mathematics and was posted to a lycée in Skoun, a small town in Kampong Cham province. Here he is remembered as a committed and earnest teacher. However, one year later, he joined the Communist Party of Kampuchea, and later joined the Khmer Rouge rebels in the Cardamom Mountains bordering Thailand.

According to Chandler, he was introduced to communism by a group of Chinese exchange students enrolled at the University of Phnom Penh to study Khmer.

“It is important to note that Duch, like many Khmer Rouge leaders who were scholars, grew up at a time where Cambodia was being repressed by the French colonials and the ideological war between super powers,” says Sambo Manara, a prominent historian in Cambodia.

“This led them to ultra-nationalism and radical thinking, resulting in class conflicts, racism, and the purge,” Manara adds

After the Khmer Rouge victory in April 1975, Duch led the regime’s Tuol Sleng prison, code-named S-21, where an estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned, tortured, and executed. There were only twelve known survivors: seven adults and five children. Some witnesses at the  ECCC claimed that while Duch never killed anyone directly, he was the one who gave the orders.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Duch moved from one place to another and ended up at Ban Ma Muang camp in Thailand in 1997. At the camp, he worked for the American Refugee Committee as the Community Health Supervisor and became a born again Christian.  In 1999, Nate Thayer, who had previously interviewed Pol Pot and Ta Mok, and Dunlop interviewed Duch for the Far Eastern Economic Review. Duch surrendered to the authorities in Phnom Penh following the publication of this interview.

Duch was the first Khmer Rouge leader to be tried by the ECCC for the crimes of the regime.

“I am solely and individually liable for the loss of at least 12,380 lives,” the former chief of the prison and torture centre, Tuol Sleng, told the tribunal in Phnom Penh, 2010. “I still and forever wish to most respectfully and humbly apologise to the dead souls.”

However, Phoeun Kompheak, a professor of the French language who served as a translator for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, and an actor who played Duch in the historical French film Le temps des aveux (2014), claims that Duch never expressed remorse until the last minute.

“He looked and acted like a gentleman, but at some moments he would burst into anger in the court,” Kompheak says.

“I discovered more about him when I played him in the film. What I can say is that you could never predict his next move – let alone imagine living in a prison under him.”

Duch’s legacy

It is likely that Duch’s name will be forever attached to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, formerly S-21, which last week received the Jikji Award from UNESCO for its efforts in preserving documents and photographic archives.

For many, including Youk Chhang, Executive Director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), and a survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields, Duch will always be known as a historical prisoner whom no one can forgive.

“History will remember him in association with the atrocities that were carried out by the Khmer Rouge,” Chhang says.  “No form of punishment on earth would be enough to punish him for what he did to the people of Cambodia. [Forgiving him] would be too much for the victims, since Duch himself has not asked that the victims forgive him.”

Manara says historically speaking, Duch’s life will be a lesson for future generations of Cambodians.

“The lesson is that scholars should help their country logically instead of ruining it,” he says. “The result of ECCC and his bad reputation, that will forever be ingrained in history, can prevent young people from becoming another Duch.”

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